October 1, 2014

The Myths of Standardization

Learn to drive a Ford Model T and you will be amazed how automobile controls have progressed! It looks similar but it's totally different from today's cars.

“The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.” Andrew Tanenbaum’s statement may be a cynical and dismissive, but it’s not far from the mark. Indeed, there are a great many standards, perhaps as many as there are efforts to standardize the world around us! But what good are standards, really?

The 3 Standard Types

In technical fields, standardization is a process of establishing a specification, definition, or procedure that is generally applicable. In other words, a standard is the exact opposite of a one-off or proprietary item.

End-users and vendors often clamor for standardization, though not usually for the same reasons:

  • End users like standards because they promote options and tend to drive down costs
  • Incumbent vendors like standards that give them control over the market or competitors, while challengers prefer “open standards” that allow them entry

Not all standards are created equal, however. Some are designed to be open and free to use, while others simply fall into widespread use. Some are designed by committee, while others are driven by a dominant player in the market. Generally, standards fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • De facto standards emerge “accidentally” as they become used more and more broadly. In many cases, companies are hesitant for their developments to become de facto standards, since they may lose control of the market and usage of their products.
  • De jure standards are legally binding requirements from contracts, laws, or regulations. These are quite rare, and often adopted only when absolutely required to ensure safety or avoid major market upheaval.
  • Other standards are made available on a voluntary basis, in hopes that they will be used. Whether designed by a committee or a single entity, voluntary standards usually serve to encourage market development.

Whose Standard Is It?

When considering one standard or another, it’s important to keep in mind it’s origin. Sony’s Memory Stick, the Blu-Ray disc, the Apple dock connector, the Microsoft Windows API, and so many more were all developed to lock in licensing and product revenue. Although it is beneficial to consumers to have standard camera media, multimedia discs, and such, these were not developed solely with the interests of consumers in mind.

Automobiles present an interesting case in standardization. It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but nearly every part of the car is proprietary, right down to the control mechanisms we take for granted while driving. Certain elements (seatbelts, windshield wipers, and the gasoline fill valve) are indeed de jure standards, but most everything else is subject to the whims of each manufacturer. Think of how difficult it is to operate the air conditioning or set the cruise control in a rental car. Then go to the auto parts store and see just how many different air filters they stock!

Consumers generally benefit when broadly accepted standards emerge, regardless of the origin. The Edison screw base on a lightbulb, for example, was developed to encourage a market for electric light fixtures but also to secure licensing revenue for the Edison company. In contrast, the “flash shoe” found the top most high-end cameras developed accidentally and incrementally over the last century. Both are now de facto standards out of control of their originators, but despite major shortcomings the value of interchangeability has made them commonplace.

Stephen’s Stance

I certainly benefit from standardization of the world around me, and I welcome interoperability and interchangeability as well as the price and product selection advantages. But I am not blithely focused on standardization above all else. I will happily use a proprietary solution if the alternative is inelegant, ineffective, or insufficient.